Coal Plants have a Significant Impact on Air Quality and Health: Incomplete Facts Don’t Change the Truth

It is a sad statement of our times that in the middle of an important public health debate, the National Post has printed a commentary that muddies the water with incomplete facts and misleading information about coal plants, air pollution and human health (Warren Kindzierski, They keep saying shutting down coal will make us healthier, so how come there’s no evidence of it? February 24, 2017).

Coal Plants and Air Pollution

Kindzierski maintains that coal plants are not a major contributor of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), the air pollutant that has been most clearly and consistently linked to chronic heart and lung diseases as well as acute health impacts. Kindzierski refers readers to several of his own studies, one of which contains a graph (posted above) that identifies coal combustion (the mustard yellow bar) as a small contributor of ultra fine particles in Alberta’s air (Md. Anul Bari et al., 2015). He fails to explain however, that coal plants are one the most significant sources of sulphur dioxide (SO2), the gaseous air pollutant that is transformed in the air into secondary sulphate (the large brown bar).

Secondary sulphate, as illustrated by the author’s own graph, is the most significant source of ultra fine particles, the most worrisome portion of PM2.5. In 2014, coal-fired power plants were responsible for 40% of the SO2 emitted in all of Alberta and 60% of the SO2 emitted in the Edmonton Region (Pembina 2016a). In other words, coal plants were the largest source of SO2 that is transformed into the secondary sulphates that contribute most significantly to air levels of ultra fine particles and PM2.5 in Alberta.

Air Pollution and Human Health

Kindzierski then goes on to challenge the view that air pollutants other than PM2.5 and ground level ozone are harmful to human health, and even calls into question the health evidence associated with PM2.5. Thousands of studies have been directed at the acute and chronic health impacts associated with air pollution over several decades. In 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) reassessed the health literature on air pollution and found, among many other things, stronger evidence that short- and long-term exposure to PM2.5 increases the risk of mortality and morbidity particularly for cardiovascular effects; stronger evidence that short-term exposures to ozone can have negative effects on a range of pulmonary and vascular health-relevant end-points; new evidence that short- and long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) can increase the risk of morbidity and mortality, mainly for respiratory outcomes; and additional evidence that exposure to SO2 may contribute to cardiovascular and respiratory mortality and morbidity and asthma symptoms in children (WHO, 2013). These findings are well known and well accepted by public health, environmental, and medical professionals around the world.

Coal Plants, Air Pollution and Human Health

In 2012, using the Air Quality Benefits Assessment Tool (AQBAT) developed by Health Canada, Environment Canada estimated that improved air quality resulting from the current coal regulations would prevent approximately 994 premature deaths and 860 hospital admissions or emergency room visits between 2015 and 2035 (Environment Canada, 2013). These avoided health outcomes were valued at $4.9 billion. In 2016, the Pembina Institute extrapolated these results to determine the additional health benefits associated with a 2030 coal plant phase-out in Canada. It found that a 2030 phase-out date would nearly double the health benefits associated with the existing coal regulations, preventing an additional 1,008 premature deaths and 871 hospital admissions or emergency room visits between 2015 and 2035. These additional health benefits were valued at nearly $5 billion (Pembina 2016b).

It is clear to us: a 2030 Canada-wide phase-out of coal-fired power plants is a public policy that will produce many direct public health benefits for Canadian while simultaneously helping us to meet our commitments under the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

Prepared by Kim Perrotta, Executive Director, CAPE, March 7, 2017

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